Leading Article: A footnote to housing misery

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The Independent Online
SIR GEORGE YOUNG yesterday made much of his crusade to ensure that allocation of council homes is fairer. He had a point. It is absurd that families on waiting lists should be pushed down the queue by others who suddenly find themselves without a roof. The equitable solution offered by Sir George is that homeless families should be provided with temporary housing and then take their turn to be offered permanent homes.

The housing minister has tackled a genuine problem that causes great resentment among those who have waited fruitlessly for years to be housed properly. In some areas, it seems the only option for poor families seeking permanent accommodation is to make themselves homeless. Yet it is hard to shout 'hurrah' for Sir George's efforts to equalise opportunity between impoverished people. He has focused narrowly on a minor problem while failing to tackle a much bigger issue: Britain's serious shortage of affordable housing. His proposed legislation will do as much to solve the housing crisis as John Major's campaign against traffic cones did in reducing congestion on the road.

There were also worrying undertones in yesterday's statement. Sir George seems to accept that children should have to live for years in temporary, insecure accommodation. He offers little action to reduce this danger. Yet the damage that can be done to a child's education by frequent moves is obvious.

As for the parents, such uncertainty makes it more difficult to hold down jobs and relationships, or to plan for the future. This is no way to shore up the family, an institution that the Government claims to want strengthened.

The root of the housing problem lies not in queue-jumping but in the lack of affordable property. Homelessness cannot be dissociated from the sale of 1.5 million council homes, which have not been replaced either in the public or in the private rented sectors. The Government gave landlords more rights in 1988 and it has set aside grants for the redevelopment of derelict properties. But there are so many cowboys among letting agencies that few people feel happy to rent out their homes.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that more than 750,000 houses stand empty. This represents around pounds 25bn of assets lying idle. Meanwhile, there are more than 50,000 families in temporary accommodation in England, six times more than a decade ago. In 1993, almost 140,000 families were accepted as homeless by councils in England. Housing need has only been compounded by repossessions (60,000 last year) and the problems of those with mortgage arrears (500,000). There are 1.5 million people on council waiting lists.

Sir George's action in tackling injustices in the allocation of council property is a welcome development. But applause should be muted. His initiative represents no more than a positive footnote in the history of the Government's failure to combat the misery felt by the many with inadequate housing or with no homes at all.